1971: You Can Never Go Back Home

English majors will think first of Thomas Wolfe when encountering the title of today’s post, but the line makes me think of a song written by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues on their 1971 release Every Good Boy Does Favor.  I purchased the album in August of that year while driving with my family back to Alaska from the lower 48 and had not had access to a record player until we got to my sister Robin’s apartment in Anchorage. I spent that silent week studying the lyrics printed on the record sleeve and was very undecided about the opening lyrics to You Can Never Go Home Anymore”

  I don’t know what I’m looking for

I never have opened the door

Tomorrow might find me at last

Turning my back on the past

My family would be parting company the next morning with my parents and younger sisters driving on home to Sterling and my older sister Robin staying in Anchorage while  would be taking the train to Fairbanks, my first year at college and my adult life.

I really wasn’t going back home.

The departure wasn’t as traumatic as it could have been. I’d been away from home many times before; youth conferences, Boy’s State – even flying by myself to California and back more than once – these all had given me the experience to take change in stride. I’d even been on a family trip to Fairbanks once before to take in the 1967 Alaska Centennial exhibition so I would be on familiar turf.  I was also counting on plenty of built-in friends, people I knew from living in Anchorage and others I’d met through the aforementioned trips and activities.

Even so my departure would have been even easier had it come a year earlier. Growing up as a service brat meant moving a lot; you learned to make yourself at home quickly and then move on just as easily. Since moving north in 1962 I’d lived in three different homes and attended four different schools so I’d little opportunity to put down roots – I felt more like a displaced California kid than an Alaskan boy. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I began to feel like a dyed-in-the-wool Kenai Peninsula rat content spending the rest of my life living between Turnagain Pass and the Homer Spit.  However, economic realities of the time required training or schooling beyond what was available locally, so I was off to the University of Alaska.

It was also a period of transition for higher education – while most jobs did not require a four-year degree the Vietnam conflict was running hot and the draft was in place. This meant more young men were going to school to get that all-important 2S Deferment, so college enrollments were on the rise. As I rode the train north I could see that most of the other passengers were also headed for college and that a lot of them were edgy about this new phase in their life….or was it that deferment?

I suppose I was a bit smug as I sat and watched the others; living away from home as part of a large institution held no terror for me.  I was sure I’d easily find my way around campus and based on the 1967 family visit navigating around the city of Fairbanks itself would also be easy. According to my parents this included getting to church, but it didn’t seem likely that my shadow would be regularly crossing that doorstep any time soon. While I had always been blessed with a knowledge of God’s existence, I had serious church issues, a few of them doctrinal, but most of them social. As I grew up church attendance had been compulsory which was particularly galling as our little congregation in Soldotna had not been a safe place for me.  That resentment had combined with the usual adolescent chafing brought on by the “shalls” and “shalt nots”; my plan was that once I left home I would to go to church once or twice (so I could answer in the affirmative to my mom’s inevitable questions) then slowly extract myself from activity and start a new life.

…. a new life that was well on the way to starting the minute the train arrived at Fairbanks, when I promptly:

  • moved into my dormitory room
  • plastered the walls with black light posters depicting “healthy” barbarian women
  • registered for classes
  • started seeing a charming young lady from Anchorage named Molly.
  • got caught up in playing intramural football on Sundays

Everything seemed to be going to plan up to the point where I ran into the brick wall – or cement floor to be precise. It happened after a dance held during orientation when a disagreement with a former high school classmate turned physical1. Unfortunately the bruises and scrapes from bouncing off doors, walls and floor of the Moore/Bartlett/Skarland complex entry way weren’t nearly as distressing as losing just about all my friends. Molly was very cool to the idea of dating someone apparently prone to brawling and my former friends from Kenai lined up behind the other guy and stopped talking to me.

My shiny new life had fallen apart.

By the middle of the first week of instruction I was climbing the walls. While my roommate and the other floor occupants were nice enough, most  conversations ended with a three-minute pitch on why I should be smoking weed with them2. Other than discussing syllabus and textbook requirements nothing was happening in my classes, so I couldn’t really throw myself into schoolwork. After spending a few afternoons looking for patterns in the acoustic tiles on the ceiling above my bed I took the bus into town.

As I mentioned, I was already familiar the down-town area, but after hiking a mile out to the hobby shop and back there wasn’t much to fill the time until the last bus later that evening. With no particular destination in mind I started walking again and was startled a half-hour later to find myself going past the Monroe & Minnie chapel. The late afternoon sun was warm and my feet were really starting to ache so I walked up the cement steps and sat down next to the front door. For a moment I smirked at the irony of the situation – I’d gone off to college trying to escape church and now I was sitting on the front steps, but I had to admit I was feeling more comfortable and relaxed there than at any other place since I stepped off the train two weeks before.

If I were writing an article for the ENSIGN, this would be the point at which I started to fervently pray – but it was more like a conversation with myself while God listened in on the extension.  I actually hadn’t been doing much praying because I didn’t want Heavenly Father to tell me to not do things that I wanted to do – a spiritual version of  sticking my fingers in my ears and chanting “ LA-LAL-LA-LA-I-CAN’T-HEAR-YOU-LA-LA-LA!” or the way I would  carefully edit what I’d tell my parents about my extracurricular “activities” rationalizing that a half-truth was better than an out-and-out lie. What my youthful hubris kept me from realizing was that I wasn’t fooling Him one bit and that maybe His plans for my life were different than my own.

As the sun continued to sink towards the horizon the air got a little cooler, so I stood up and stretched – and heard some indistinct sounds from inside the church. I checked my watch (5:30) and I wondered if Mutual (youth meetings) met on Wednesdays so I checked the door and found it unlocked.  After a self-inflicted eye-roll I eased through the door and into the foyer where I found two young ladies sitting on the floor against one of the walls. They were seniors at Lathrop High School and after walking over to the church they’d taken a quick snooze to rest up for a “Get Acquainted” dance due to start in about an hour. One of the girls I knew in passing from youth conference while the other one…

…was someone that I really, really wished I already knew as well. Bearing a strong resemblance to my friend Marie3 back in Soldotna, she was fair-haired and petite with umber eyes that played to my weakness for brown-eyed blondes.

Hmmmm.

About a month later…

I was sitting in church, the petite brown-eyed blond on the pew next to me. We were on our way to becoming Best Friends, a development that I did not see coming, but welcome just as the overall improvement in my life was greatly appreciated. I also liked where I was sitting – this congregation definitely was a safe place. The members had been very welcoming and warm towards me and I knew I was where I had always wanted to be.

I had enough fun at the dance to prompt my appearance at regular church meetings the following Sunday where I ran into Lance, Gwen and other friends from past youth conferences. During the intervening weeks a disastrous visit back home to the peninsula was met with an icy reception by former friends, and convinced me that the future was here with college and my new circle of friends…

…who became almost as important to me as a newly reacquired spiritual awareness.

Between sermons, motivational speakers and inspirational posters I’ve gotten the message that you can’t blame all your shortcomings on other people – but at the same time there’s something to be said about the negative effect of growing up with never-ending criticism and ridicule in a place that was supposed to embody divine love. There was also the stress of trying to reconcile what I was taught to be proper behavior with the open-secret off-hours antics of men who were supposed to be my role models.

It brought to mind the an old saying “I could not hear what you said because your actions shout so loudly!”  4 To me that statement had added weight: Early in life I learned that I didn’t get smacked as often if I paid more attention to a person’s body language and actions than to what they were saying. At the same time, I learn mainly through analogy and patterning, so verbal presentation of abstract concepts can often come across as someone speaking French – I can piece together a little bit of the information but most of the meaning is lost.

What I was starting to figure out was not particularly Gallic in nature, and therein was hope.  I decided to try and have more “conversations with myself with God on the extension” and would try reading and studying in the hope of gaining faith, the difference being that this time it wasn’t to keep my parents or even my new Best Friend happy….

…. this time it was for me.

 


 

1.He had given me a hard time all the way through high school and after a couple of very improper comments to Molly I thought to myself “I’m not going put up with  another four years of this” and punched him in the nose. He then proceeded to mop the floor with me. Did I mention that he was an All-State, 4-year letterman in wrestling and had at least three inches on me? Definitely not a good choice on my part.

2. See 1972: A Different Kind of Bug Dope.

3. See 1971: Alaskan Graffiti.

4. A line that had to have been written by someone who grew up in a bi-polar household.

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